I wasn’t originally planning to write about Girls and Sex: Navigating the Complicated New Landscape by Peggy Orenstein and Spinster: Making a Life of One’s Own by Kate Bolick in the same post, but as I was gathering my thoughts I started to see some connections between the two. Both are excellent examples of journalism and cultural criticism, and both try to convince the reader to reconsider the traditional narratives about sexuality and femininity. So, a pair of mini-reviews it is!
Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein
If there’s one book I’ve read so far this year that I would consider a “must read,” it’s Girls and Sex by Peggy Orenstein. The book is a survey and exploration of sexuality and sexual behavior among young girls in high school and college, based extensively on interviews Orenstein conducted with young women in high school and college. Through those interviews, along with a wealth of other research, Orenstein put together a book that is wide-ranging, thoughtful, and sure to spark conversations about how we can teach girls (and boys) about sex better.
I loved the way Orenstein gave weight to the experiences the girls she interviewed shared and thought carefully about what messages they were and weren’t getting from their peers, their parents, and the other adults in their lives. I also thought her discussion of consent brought some necessary nuance to that issue – we’re at a moment when teaching women about healthy sexuality needs to go beyond “no means no,” even thought that conversation can be really difficult to have. In fact, her biggest argument is that by being reluctant to talk frankly about sex, both the good and the bad, we don’t prepare them to make healthy choices in the world. This book is an important read, highly recommended.
Spinster by Kate Bolick
Spinster is one of those books that I had mixed feelings about. On the one hand, once I sat down to read it, I tore through this book in a single day because I was facing pressure to get it back to the library on time, and because I enjoyed reading it so much. In the book, Bolick writes about “pleasures and possibilities of remaining single,” using her own experiences and the experiences of women over time who bucked conventions of marriage and family during their own times. It’s a fascinating mix of memoir and cultural criticism that helped me think a lot about the choices I’ve made and why some of the boundaries I’ve set remain important as I think about balancing family and a flourishing creative life.
On the other hand, I think it’s important to note that Bolick has a very specific idea of who a spinster is – a woman who remains single and childless by choice – that doesn’t necessarily encompass the diversity of experiences single women have. The fact that Bolick jumped from relationship to relationship, deliberately choosing to remain single despite (I think) two chances to get married, puts her in a situation with a lot of privilege I’m not sure other women have. It doesn’t invalidate the book, it’s just one of those contexts that matters when talking about the book and one of the ways in which I feel cautious about a universal recommendation. I loved it, but because I could see so much of myself in these stories – I’m not sure if other readers will feel the same way.